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Lost In The Wood

Leonard & Ann Marie Wilson

Pawn or Protagonist? (Part 1)

Reconciling the Dual Nature of Player Characters 

Nameless, faceless, identical -- pawns exist to be sacrificed on the chess board. Growing emotionally attached to your playing pieces, struggling to keep them instead of staying focused on which ones to give up in order to move yourself closer to victory, is an amateurish mistake, and there lie the roots of role-playing. Our hobby sprang from a tradition of tabletop miniatures wargames, which sit nestled securely in the same family tree as chess, even if you're not going to accept them as direct descendants. 

Larger-than-life, flamboyant, enduring -- the heroes of adventure stories exist to do the things we wish we dared, or the things we hope we'd be capable of if we suddenly found the fate of the world resting on our shoulders. They're forever risking life and limb without ever really risking life and limb, because we know the all-powerful storyteller can't actually let them die before reaching the climactic struggle. Yet we lay down good money again and again, not to answer the question of whether our hero will live through his countless exploits, but how. And it was these sorts of protagonists that sparked the imaginations of the wargamers who invented role-playing games, and led them to adapt their rules from managing massed armies to covering man-to-man combat. 

So which is the "right" way to treat player-characters in an RPG? As expendable pawns on a chessboard, or as the charmed protagonists of a novel? My answer is, "Neither one." Even though RPGs are marketed as games; and despite the fact that many players approach RPGs with all the dramatic earnestness of a Shakespearean actor playing Othello to a packed house; RPGs are in that adolescent phase where they're struggling to establish an identity of their own, independent of their parents. Trying to pigeon-hole them as one or the other can quickly lead to pointless frustration. 

The very first player characters in role-playing may not have been identical, but they were certainly pawns. D&D's inventors just replaced their companies of soldiers with individual heroes. The players would still plan strategies; move pieces about the map; and roll dice to decide their fates. Sometimes they won, sometimes they lost, and when they lost, the pawn "died". It died because that's what happened at the miniatures table: once defeated, the units of a miniatures army were lost and gone -- forgotten as the swirl of battle moved away from the spot where they'd fallen. 

A funny thing happened on the way to this particular battlefield, though. In focusing on the individual warriors, players gave them names and imagined faces for them. Those warriors who survived one battle often moved on to the next, and when they did, they took their stories with them, accumulating a semblance of humanity bit-by-bit through weathering each storm, not unlike the Velveteen Rabbit. Without fully understanding the implications of this phenomenon, the pioneers of the hobby embraced it. In the days before home computers and sophisticated video games, after all, this was the closest it got to virtual reality -- stepping inside a story and living another life. So it came to pass that the players of the game began bonding with their pawns. 

Once you bond with anything, it becomes a part of your life, and you will naturally want to keep it there. The heroes of a D&D game could no longer be allowed to go so gently into that good night as just another pawn, and the creators of the game found themselves needing a way to ease the sting of player-character death. Attempting to address this issue brought them to the first great fork in the road in the history of RPG design. 

An experienced storyteller, faced with the knowledge that his audience needed its heroes to spend more time on stage before death removed them permanently from the tale, would typically think in terms of killing heroes less often -- but the pioneers of role-playing weren't storytellers, they were gamers. Killing player characters less often would interfere with the gambler's adrenelin high created by the perception of great risk; and a gamer thinks nothing of grabbing up a fallen token and placing it back on the board later so long as the rules allow. The minds behind D&D latched onto the precedent of stories in which the dead are brought back to life, and -- trusting that making it high-level magic and charging a hefty fee in gold would keep it seeming rare and wonderous enough -- they introduced raise-dead spells into the dawning world of role-playing. But once the precedent had been set, most players expected access to the spells, just as they would come to expect ability scores that averaged better than the 10.5 you get from rolling three six-sided dice for each. So overlooking the option to back off from making "to-the-death" the default standard for combat encounters, D&D instead re-defined "death" as sending your character to his room for a time-out and docking his allowance. Specific GMs might choose to keep death more harsh, just as specific GMs might reject the new methods of generating ability scores that skewed PC-abilities higher, but the overall trend had been established, and the stage had been set for countless squabbles between extremist role-players and extremist roll-players. 

In many ways, this fight over the word "death" is the fight over the identity of RPGs themselves. Players who sit down at the table for a story with some game in it will typically expect player-characters to die hard, but for death to be (more or less) the final word. Players who sit down at the table for a game with some story in it may expect PC survival to hang constantly in the balance, but then turn around and head for the banks of the river Styx when their characters do die, waiting expectantly for the ferryman to bring them back out of Hades. And always it comes back to that essential yet misleading question: are the player-characters pawns or protagonists? 

If you'll be good enough to hold that thought, I'll get back to it next time in part 2.

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